Over the last year, illustrator Johanna Kindvall and I have collaborated on a series of posts devoted to seasonal cheeses. “Winter Blues” is the last of our 4-part project (links below to the other three posts). To celebrate, we designed a blue-cheese pairing party. We hope it inspires you to lower the lights, fire up the turntable, and invite a few cheese-loving friends over for soulful nibbling.
Cheers! — Madame Fromage & Johanna Kindvall
Winter Blues: A Pairing Party
by Madame Fromage
Late winter is an ideal time to host an Around the World with Blue Cheese party. In the cold months, who doesn’t dream of traveling abroad? Since so many countries make iconic blues, it’s delightful to take one’s taste buds on a cruise from Stilton to Roquefort, then home again for a taste of artisan American funk.
Blues vary widely in taste and texture. Some swing savory with notes of creamed spinach, fresh herbs, or even pine — while others deliver a sweet song to the tongue. Gorgonzola Dolce tastes like ice cream (try it with cherry jam and graham crackers), and Valdéon can deliver notes of grape and white chocolate. Other blues make me think of oysters – all minerals and brine. Exquisite.
Here’s what to do if you want to host a blue cheese pairing party:
1) Pick a wide range of blues, like the ones listed below – aim for five or six hunks, you’ll need ¼ or ½ pound each.
2) Invite 8 to 12 friends, and tell each person to bring an after-dinner drink: stout, barley wine, Scotch/whiskey, or a fortified wine (like Port, Madeira, or Sherry).
Then, set out all of your cheeses – let them come to room temperature before serving, and use notecards to label them – and garnish them with some grapes, dates or apricots, walnuts, berry jam, honey, and dark chocolate.
At your tasting party, let the blues talk. Try them one at a time with a variety of beverages. You’ll go through every glass in your cupboard. Between bites, you can eat grapes or baguette slices to cleanse your palate. At the end of the night, snap photos of your favorite pairings. If you forget, don’t worry – everyone will remember the night they came to your house for a blue cheese initiation.
Note: if you don’t want to mix too many kinds of alcohol, just pick dessert wines or stout/barleywines.
Five Iconic Blue Cheeses
Britain’s iconic blue is savory with hints of tobacco and leather. It’s sold in wheels with a cigar-colored rind, making its whole disposition rather grandfatherly. Think of it as a craggy, cozy old character – ideally suited for slushy days and a back-drop of scratchy folk records. “Potted Stilton” is sold in crocks – a sort of holiday treat. It’s soft and pungent, delicious with chutney and a plate of oaty biscuits. For a much-loved pairing, sip a glass of Port (or even Scotch). Stilton also loves stout.
Spain’s most famous blue is a “granny” cheese, sweet and a little salty with a shawl made of Sycamore leaves. Lean in and you’ll smell a damp cottage with a front walkway made of slate and violets sticking up between the cracks. Lovely for dessert, try serving it with a spot of dark chocolate – it has a hint of white chocolate on the finish, which is lovely to play off. Walnuts and honey are a fine pairing, too. Sherry and barleywine make especially good matches.
Italy produces a pair of twin blue cheeses, dolce (sweet) and piccante (sharp). Piccante loves pasta and is terrific shmeared on steak or stirred into white bean soup. Dolce loves a light clear honey and a crack of black pepper, alongside some pears – it’s so gooey, you can spoon it up like mousse. Try pairing it with a fruity lambic (Kriek) or barleywine.
Really good French Roquefort tastes like a cheese from the sea – salty and mineral bright. Its indigo veins shimmer, and its paste is the consistency of melting butter, thanks to sheep’s milk. Roquefort gains its extraordinary combination of flavors from aging in seaside caves that are famous for their “fleurines” – fissures that allow the damp air to circulate. Quality Roquefort (I like Carles), served with a chilled glass of Sauternes, will leave you speechless.
Rogue River Smokey
One of the great American artisan blues, RRS tastes like bacon in the form of cheese. It loves camping, pancakes, and long walks on the beach. Rogue Creamery, in Oregon, makes a dozen different blues, each one subtly different. This selection is gently smoked over hazelnut shells, making for a nutty, buttery rogue. Pair it with an achingly dark stout or a Manhattan.
Wondering how blue cheeses get their dark veins? They’re pierced with long needles. The piercings allow air to flow through the wheels, and that promotes “blue-ing.” Many people think that blue mold is injected into the cheese, but that’s not so. The “blue” develops naturally, thanks to a special culture (Penicillium Roqueforti) that cheesemakers stir into the curds. That said, “blue” likes to wander, so you’ll want to store your blue cheeses away from other cheeses in your fridge.
Earlier Posts in this Series…
Your Spring Goat Cheese Primer (part 1)
Late Summer Cheese Picnic (part 2)
Smoke and Funk: A Fall Cheese Board (part 3)
Have you ever thought about putting pink peppercorns in cheese? Or making a cheese sized for exactly one person? Why am I asking you this? This week I’ve been tracking a bunch of food predictions that are making their rounds as part of the post-holiday news cycle. Here are 4 trends worth noting if you orbit the cheese world as a maker, shaker, caterer, cook, or enthusiast…
Grub Street’s dining report predicts a deluge of ’80s era dishes and spices that will rock restaurant tables in 2015. Among them…pasta salad, the return of quiche (did it ever vanish?), and pink peppercorns. I’ve seen plenty of cheeses dotted with green and black ‘corns, like Piacentinu, Marco Polo, and Anton’s Peppered Ass, but is anyone using pink peppercorns…for Valentine’s? For drag show cheese boards? For princess parties? Come on, why not?
This Kickstarter campaign posted by 2 California brothers who plan to raise yaks (after experience in Tibet) suggests a new direction in dairy. Perhaps? Remember when I was all excited about camel cheese? That didn’t really fire up any bellies, but yak cheese could be the IT?! What do ya think, guys? At the very least, check out the yak cheese story…it illustrates the wild spirit of dairy entrepreneurs!
I won’t lie. I’ve fallen hard for making bone broth this winter, and I can’t think of anything lovelier to serve with a grilled cheese than a bowl of spiked bone broth. Emily Acosta (@_emilyacosta) brought this link to my attention this morning when I posted a photo of my homemade bone broth on Instagram — turns out this award-winning cheesemonger (Acosta works at Eataly in NYC) is a bone broth fan, too! One day I hope to toast her in person with some Glenlivet stirred into lamb broth.
Blogger Dianne Jacob writes about solo eating trends on her blog Will Write for Food, which can only mean one thing: cheesemakers might want to think about small-format cheeses designed for singles. No cheese singles puns, please. Think about the convenience of Saint Marcellin (sold in a small crock) and Banon (tiny, wrapped in leaves). As a solo lunch-eater who loves packing cheese into backpacks and handbags, I am rallying behind this one! (That cheese pictured up top is Wabash Cannonball — one of my favorite truffle-sized cheeses.)
On the horizon: This week I’m working on a cheese board with young-adult author (and my colleague) April Lindner who is launching her third YA novel, Love, Lucy. We’re picking out cheeses that represent her main characters to serve at her launch party on January 30 at Salem Vineyards in NJ. Take a peek at April’s blog for details; it’s open to fiction fans and YA readers, but please RSVP.
Back in November, I put out a call for an intern — after five years of solo blogging and writing, I had an itch to collaborate (in my mind, an internship is a shared experience and an exchange of ideas). Lo, the applications rolled in, and they were fantastic. Bowled over, I was. Who knew so many people aspired to learn about cheese and blogging?
Let me introduce the fabulous dames who will be working with me this spring: Erin Konigsdorffer (left)and Samantha Un (right). I feel such gratitude for their fresh eyes, minds, and mouths.
Erin Konigsdorffer is the designated cheese intern. She’s a senior Communications major at Saint Joseph’s University and brings web design experience, a keen interest in food photography, and a wild yen for cheese. In exchange for her design knowledge, she’s receiving a personalized dairy tutorial from Yours Truly. This week’s cheese was Nusskase — she likes Alpines. And washed rinds.
For a recent event with Discover My Italy, she developed her own line of dairy placards that we displayed with Italian cheeses. Erin plans to chronicle her cheese journey on Instagram (@Constant_Bliss).
Samantha Un is the official libations intern. (Remember that cocktail book I was frantically working on last summer?) Sam is an award-winning Communications professional with a beautiful blog called Her Savory Life. A few months ago, she left a cream job — after an awakening on the island of Naxos — to explore a new way of thinking and being. You can read about her quest on her site or in recent articles on Femme & Fortune and Brazen Life.
In addition to sipping some custom cocktails, Sam and I will be developing a new site called Sprig & Spirit — we’ll tell you more about it as it comes together. You can follow her world on Twitter (@hersavorylife) and Instagram (@hersavorylife_).
Here’s what a kitchen full of cheese groupies looks like. This is a shot from yesterday’s Philly Chef Conference, hosted by Drexel University’s Center for Hospitality and Sports Management. It brought together chefs — yes — but also writers, cookbook agents, students, restaurateurs, bakers, brewers, bartenders, food producers, and cheesemakers. What a thrill to be asked to select a special cheese pairing for a panel on “Building a Cheese Program.”
Our panel’s task: to to show aspiring chefs how to incorporate cheese boards into a restaurant menu. You’re looking at — from right to left — Sande Friedman (Tria), Yours Truly, Mary Grace Hodge (Flying Fish Brewing, moderator), Aimee Olexy (Talula’s), Sue Miller (Birchrun Hills Farm), and Julianne Scott (Drexel student helper).
Our panel’s goal: to give aspiring chefs a taste of great American cheeses. Most of the cheeses we selected were from around Pennsylvania to illustrate the vibrant dairy renaissance that is happening around us. Here’s what we served…
Goat cheese “truffles” + fresh marmalade
Restauranteur and local-cheese lover Aimee Olexy of Talula’s Garden and Talula’s Daily in Philly rolled Shellbark Sharp II into pinballs and topped them with a smidge of marmalade to play off the acidity of goat cheese.
Try this at home: Use any chèvre, roll it into balls, and serve it with marmalade (homemade or prepared) that has been mixed with a little fresh orange zest. On the side, serve a sweet cracker like Carr’s Whole Wheat, Lark Oat Bark, or Effie’s Oat Crackers. Pair with sparkling wine or green tea.
Valley Milkhouse Thistle + Spruce Hill Blueberry Bourbon Jam
I’ve been enamored with this gooey bloomy cheese (think Brie), called Thistle, that has emerged from Oley, PA. To play off its fatty goodness, I chose a tart berry jam. It just so happened that Molly Haendler from Spruce Hill Preserves was at the conference, and she offered up a Bourbon-tinged sample. Woodsy and not too sweet, her jam was an excellent match.
Try this at home: Serve a gooey vixen (look for Brie de Meaux or Harbison from Vermont) and crack into a jar of berry preserves — cherry, blueberry, blackberry, loganberry, and strawberry all work well. For interest, swirl a splash of bourbon into your jam, or serve a bourbon hot toddy on the side.
Nutcracker Goat Cheese + Honey Brittle
Sande Friedman who runs the cheese program at Tria, a series of wine bars, presented Yellow Springs Nutcracker, a firm goat cheese washed in walnut liqueur. Her house-made honey brittle was an outstanding touch — crisp and carameline. It illustrated how contrasting textures can create balance on a cheese board. You could serve her honey brittle with any cheese, and it’s a great alternative to nut brittles for those who have allergies.
Try this at home: Recipes for honey brittle are easy to make and require little more than local honey and baking soda (to make it puff up). Serve it with a firm goat cheese, like a goat Gouda or Midnight Moon.
Marieke Gouda with Fenugreek + Apple Mostarda
Aimee Olexy snuck in a second pairing to add a twinge of sweetness. Gouda, like Marieke’s from Wisconsin, can be a great last or second-to-last cheese on a board because it swings both sweet and savory. Aimee illustrated this with apple mostarda, a sweet-hot condiment from northern Italy.
Try this at home: Next time you serve Gouda, offer a sweet and savory pairing that can easily be combined, like bacon and maple syrup or apple butter and coarse mustard. You can also make mostarda (this looks like a great recipe from Marc Vetri) or find it in specialty food stores. I love mostarda with cheese and cured meats — Di Bruno Bros. carries an incredible line in their stores.
Red Cat + Flying Fish Abbey Dubbel
Sue Miller of Birchrun Hills Farm presented her funky washed rind cheese, a style based on a monastic recipe. Beefy cheeses always pair well with complex abbey-style beers that are malty and effervescent.
Try this at home: Pick up a washed-rind cheese (it has a sticky orange rind), such as Taleggio or Epoisses. Serve it with an abbey dubbel. A savory spread, like onion jam or tomato jam, pairs beautifully.
What inspires you to pick up a cheese and take it home for the night?
I’m asking because this question has been keeping me up at night. It’s the subject of a talk I agreed to give at PASA’s Farming for the Future Conference on February 7 — a talk called “Describing Products for Market: How to Write for Readers and Customers.” Eeep! Writing for readers is one thing, but I don’t think of you as a “customer,” and yet you are. If you read this blog, you probably take risks on cheeses when you shop.
So, what makes you step out of your comfort zone and buy something other than the old familiars…mozzarella, jack, havarti, cheddar?
Are you inspired by…
- clever signage (remember Jeff Gordinier’s NYT article on ripe prose)?
- a conversation with a cheesemonger who offers you a taste?
- creative labeling or savvy packaging?
- pairing suggestions?
- context — like seeing a picture of the farm where the cheese is made? or happy cows?
- social media imagery from particular vendors?
I’d like to share your feedback with Pennsylvania cheesemakers — picture Amish beards, farmers’ market vendors, future cheesemakers, old creaky cheesmakers, people without marketing degrees or brand managers. If you could offer a tip from your experience as a buyer (or as a cheesemonger who works with buyers), drop me a comment.
This is a conversation I’ve wanted to have for a long time. After all, I buy an indecent amount of cheese, and I witness a lot of studious lurkers around the counter. I see them scratch their chins and hear them hem and haw. Buying cheese strikes me as a very different kind of purchasing decision than, say, picking out craft beer — which is cheese’s soul mate.
Lovers of the rind, what should cheesemakers communicate to you as eaters?
Look for more on this topic in coming weeks. Together with my new interns (whee!), we’re delving into something beyond my usual scope of nibbling, tippling, and trekking out to farms. In 2015, we’re looking to explore the connection between curds and communication — not for personal gain but to deepen our own civic commitment to small-batch cheesemakers.
For upcoming appearances at PASA and at the Philly Chef Conference, shimmy over to Events.